It’ll be three years on 19 October. I remember that phone call at night. Her voice was full of panic, fear, pain and confusion. I took the first flight to her in the morning and rang the doorbell as they were having breakfast. There was relief and denial on her face. “You didn’t need to come! Everything is okay, don’t worry, I’m fine!” This was not going to be easy.
The day after her wedding, she had recognised the first of a series of lies. She was shocked, but didn’t want to worry her family. She would figure it out; she was sure things would be okay. The violent rage, subtle denials, abuse and manipulation were punctuated with just enough justification and “I’m sorry, I love you, it’ll never happen again” to keep her holding on.
But soon his songs got less pretty: “There’s nothing you can do, you can’t go back to your family; you’re stuck with me forever.”
He was a coward. He hung his head in shame and shook his head remorsefully at everything I had to say. A brother-in-law turned up to defend his cause, saying she had provoked him and asked for it; it was all her fault. We filed a case of domestic violence just so that the next girl he married didn’t hear, “What can you do? Nothing!” Just for justice, and to fix the balance in the world.
I was left with anger and indignation at the idea that there are thousands of other homes mirroring this ugly truth. I realised that no matter how strong, self-aware and confident a girl is, a situation like this can leave her emotionally paralysed.
I learnt that the Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) was passed in 2005, and even though 60 per cent of Indian women have suffered abuse or violence, most cases go unreported. It’s ironic that women themselves conceal their abuse.
I wanted to tell women that, as part of their wedding vows, they must also vow to love, respect and protect themselves, even if the other person doesn’t. I wanted them to always remember the power within them. I realised that the best way to pass this message on to women was to whisper it in their ears through the jewellery they wore.
The typecasting of brides as shy and demure disturbs me, and I wanted to present an alternate image. I visualised confident girls with strong strides; I wanted to see the power and confidence of a career and boardroom presence carried over in the bride.
In March 2011 we presented ‘Wedding Vows’ at the Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai. The show opened with a bride in a red lehenga and racer-back blouse, with a thin veil covering her face, walking up the head ramp and pulling a kirpan, for protection, out of her intricately carved necklace.
Tridents, ceremonial knives, warrior helmets and spear heads were worked into wedding-style jewellery as symbols of empowerment and strength. The message was for families too: their daughters’ trousseaus must contain strength, support and knowledge, not just gold.
Saris were printed with parts of the PWDVA. Two conceptual neckpieces looked like road signs: ‘Violators Will Be Prosecuted,’ referring to the PWDVA, and ‘No Entry Unless Authorised’ hanging low enough to allude to sexual abuse in marriages. The ‘bridal veil’, a cage like headpiece, had serrated edges. Most of these were later converted into wearable pieces of jewellery; the kirpan necklace, which was meant to be just a runway piece, has become one of our most iconic bestsellers.
Someone once called me a ‘fashion activist’, and though I hadn’t heard the term before, I think it makes perfect sense. Fashion in conjunction with media can be a powerful way to convey a social message. There are a lot of gender-stereotypes, but I believe positive empowering messages will stand out even more in contrast.
To me, jewellery is not about ornamentation; it is a liberating expression of one’s personality. It speaks of who we are, how we think, our sensibility, and even our ideology. Making jewellery is not a business for me; it is an extension of me. It is where I place my thoughts and emotions; it is my language.
When the kirpan necklace was opened at the head ramp, there was a collective gasp from the audience; goose bumps and tears were reported throughout the show. I have received emails telling me how these pieces have become symbols of journeys out of violent marriages, reminders of personal strength. I have had brides buy these for their weddings, mothers for their daughters, and wonderful husbands for their wives.
I’ve created a lot of collections, but none has had the emotional and transformational impact Wedding Vows has. They say good things come out of difficult situations; this would be a gratifying example.